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‘Trust Nobody, and Proceed with Caution’

Two new safety videos aim to protect New York inmates from prison rape.

In the upcoming months, New York state will take an unusual step towards preventing prison rape: Prisons will show inmates — both male and female — an orientation video offering advice on how to identify, and avoid, sexual predators behind bars.

The videos, funded through a grant from the federal government under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), are directed by T.J. Parsell, a former prisoner who was also raped in prison. They will be premiered for the inmates who participated in the filming — at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, Fishkill Correctional Facility, and Downstate Correctional Facility — then rolled out in prisons across the state.

New York has had an uneven record on prison rape. In 2010, according to PREA surveys, three of the eleven prisons in the U.S. with the most staff-on-inmate sexual violence were in New York. Since 2009, three corrections officers at Bedford Hills alone have been charged with raping inmates.

The orientation videos are an attempt to confront that legacy and to change a prison culture in which sexual assault, and the code of silence surrounding it, remain all too common.

The Marshall Project has obtained exclusive access to the videos. Below, a selection of clips from each (or watch the full videos).

The vulnerability of being new.

Parsell, the director, informs the viewer that he was drugged, dragged to an empty cell, and gang-raped during his first day in prison.

Misconceptions.

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The videos focus on dispelling common fears — primarily, that prisoners can expect to be immediately and brutally assaulted. Instead, predators now employ subtler tactics: giving gifts to new inmates to make them feel dependent.

The targets.

An effeminate male prisoner and a gay female prisoner acknowledge that they are seen as “fair game.”

Guard-on-inmate abuse.

In a remarkable sequence, several female prisoners explain that staff can be predatory, too, and offer tips on identifying when a corrections officer is behaving inappropriately. Minutes later, a corrections officer tells viewers that they have “an absolute right to report [assault] and to be free from retaliation.”

Situations to avoid.

Both films offer practical advice, including, in these two clips, how to tell whether your weight-lifting partner is a making sexual advances and how to behave in the shower.

Prison “mothers” and “daughters.”

The orientation video for women emphasizes the social stressors inside prison and how they may turn inmates into easy targets. Several female inmates explain how, upon arrival, you may “feel guilty for leaving your family.” Predators, sensing your low self-esteem and loneliness, may offer to be your prison “mother” or “sister.”

Destigmatizing snitching.

A major goal of the videos, according to Parsell, was to “carve out an exception to the stigma, among most male prisoners and many female ones, against snitching.” If the code of silence is breached, he says, and “the men say rape is not going to happen, it’s not going to happen.”

Watch the full videos: